Only one of the three defendants breached the standard of care owed to the plaintiff, court says
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has sustained in part and dismissed another part of an action for damages initiated by a woman who suffered a severe brain injury from an ATV accident in 2014 against her then-boyfriend and his parents.
In Desrochers et al v. McGinnis et al, 2022 ONSC 5050, the plaintiff, Megan Desrochers, suffered a severe brain injury when the ATV she was riding left the roadway and struck a tree in July 2014. At the time of the accident, she was travelling on Young Road in Prince Edward County en route to the home of the defendants, Grant and Catherine McGinnis.
The other defendant, Patrick McGinnis, followed the plaintiff in a truck but did not see the accident happen. Patrick is the son of Grant and Catherine and was the plaintiff’s boyfriend at the time of the accident. Grant owns the ATV, while Catherine was at home the night of the plaintiff’s fateful trip on the ATV.
The plaintiff filed an action for damages with the Superior Court against all the defendants. She alleged that the defendants were negligent because they permitted her to ride the ATV alone on a public road when they knew or should have known that it was unsafe for her to do so.
However, the defendants sought the dismissal of the action. They argued that they did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care and, even if they did, she did not prove, on the balance of probabilities, that any breach caused or contributed to the accident.
The Superior Court dismissed the action against Grant and Catherine but found that the plaintiff had established liability against Patrick.
The court determined that establishing a duty of care is a “low threshold” legal requirement, and the real issue is whether any of the defendants breached the standard of care. It stressed that the general approach to determining the appropriate standard of care is found in Ryan v. Victoria (City), which held that to avoid liability, a person must exercise the standard of care that would be expected of an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in the same circumstances.
“The measure of what is reasonable depends on the facts of each case, including the likelihood of a known or foreseeable harm, the gravity of that harm, and the burden or cost, which would be incurred to prevent the injury,” Justice Patrick Hurley wrote.
The court found that Patrick had many years of experience operating the ATV, apparently without any accidents or careless operation. However, there was no evidence that either Grant or Catherine knew or should have known that Patrick would not operate it safely, the court added.
“Grant was not at home on July 29, 2014, and had no knowledge, before the accident, about Megan riding the ATV that night or planning to do so,” Justice Hurley wrote. “Catherine assumed that Megan would be driving the ATV back to the house but there was no evidence that she knew or should have known that Megan would drive on Young Road instead of across the field.”
Accordingly, the court held that Catherine did not have a positive duty to prevent the plaintiff from getting on the ATV, compel her to wear a helmet, or instruct her not to drive back on Young Road. Thus, neither Grant nor Catherine breached the standard of care.
“Patrick is in a different position than his parents,” Justice Hurley wrote. “I find that Megan had received minimal instruction from him in the operation of the ATV and that she had only driven it in an open field under his direct supervision or when he was a passenger. She had little experience in turning the ATV and none with sharp turns. She had no familiarity with riding the ATV on Young Road.”
The court inferred from the evidence that Patrick gave the plaintiff no warning or caution about driving on Young Road or how to negotiate the sharp turn and took no steps to drive in front of her to ensure that she either slowed down or stopped before arriving at the curve. It noted that an experienced ATV rider like Patrick would know the effort and skill necessary to negotiate such a sharp curve successfully.
Based on these facts, the court ruled that Patrick breached the standard of care. By his acts and omissions, he failed to exercise the care of an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person considering the likelihood of known or foreseeable harm, the potential for the plaintiff to suffer serious injury, and when he could have taken simple steps to prevent that harm from occurring, the court concluded.